The route of the problem
EVEN FIRST-TIME visitors arriving in most European capitals can quite easily work out the best way to get around the cities within a few minutes of arriving at the airport, with tickets designed to work across all modes of public transport easy to find and easy to understand.
Itâ€™s not so simple in Ireland, however, and even regular bus users who have lived in Dublin for more than a decade struggle to identify the pre-paid tickets that might best suit their needs, or even if such tickets exists.
The Siemens European Green Cities Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit and published last month, ranked Dublin 21st out of 30 in a list of the greenest cities in Europe and described it as the worst city in Europe in terms of its transport infrastructure.
It showed that just one in five people use public transport, compared to 42 per cent across Europe, and found that the length of the capitalâ€™s public transport network and its cycle lanes were well below the 30-city average. It also criticised the lack of a fully integrated ticketing system for public transport.
Bad and all as it is, the bus network is still essential to the smooth running of the city, as was illustrated 10 days ago when Dublin Bus ordered all its drivers to pull in shortly after 3pm because driving conditions had become too hazardous due to a heavy snowfall. Almost immediately the city stopped moving â€“ taxis couldnâ€™t be got for love nor money, trains practically overflowed, while many commuters had little choice but to walk and slide home.
After forging a successful career in online publishing, Antoin O Lachtnain took the rather unusual step of setting up a bus service â€“ the Swords Express â€“ which ferries people in and out of to the city centre in around 30 minutes, significantly faster than the semi-state buses operating the same route, although he does charge more for the service.
He is fairly scathing of the public transport system in Ireland. â€œI think it is really awful. There has been a lot of capital investment and more buses have been bought, but there has been no increase in passenger numbers because there are too many overlapping routes and some services set up by Dublin Bus are in direct competition with other routes offered by the same company.â€
O Lachtnain bemoans the absence of information for consumers about the network and how best to use it. â€œThere is usually a ticket to meet peopleâ€™s needs but it can be very hard to find. There is no map of the public transport routes in the city so it can be very hard for people without a significant level of local knowledge to work out how to get across the city. The information on the bus shelters, in particular, is very weak and the fare system is very complicated.â€
It is the absence of an integrated ticketing system â€“ which would allow people switch between the Dart, Luas, trains and buses â€“ that is one of the major problems. And in fairness to Dublin Bus, it is not a fault of its making but a systemic one that successive governments have failed to address. Its introduction has taken more than a decade of discussions yet it seems as far off as ever.
â€œThe technology behind the proposed integrated system is certainly complicated. They decided against a simple paper-based system and have gone straight to the smart card system so they can better do internal audits and track what mode of transport commuters are travelling on. It has less to do with the end userâ€™s needs and more to do with accounting and doing tallies on how many people are using each of their services,â€ says O Lachtnain. â€œThe companies need to put the consumer at the heart of their service.â€
At least one major improvement is on the horizon. An automatic vehicle localisation system is being trialled by Dublin Bus out of its Summerhill garage and, when it is rolled out across the network later this year, updated and accurate timetable information will be available through the Dublin Bus website and via text message. The next phase will see the information displayed at bus stops, although the timing of such a roll-out depends on the local authorities approving displays.
A spokeswoman for Dublin Bus rejected the criticisms and said its fares offered good value for money and were â€œthe cheapest mode of public transport in Dublinâ€. She said that independent market research done by Behaviour and Attitudes had shown that customers rate Dublin Bus fares â€œas being consistently good value for money and better value than other forms of transportâ€.
Dublin Bus is not, of course, the only public transport company which is experiencing problems. Earlier this month, Bus Ã‰ireann announced its intention to make â€œservice changesâ€ â€“ a reduction in the number of routes it serves in laymanâ€™s language â€“ this year blaming â€œpoor levels of customer supportâ€ for the cutbacks. â€œWe had a 10 per cent fall in numbers in 2009 and are facing significant financial losses,â€ said a company spokesman, who added that â€œwe will have to implement service changes shortlyâ€.
With the opening up of the motorway connecting Galway and Dublin, you might be forgiven for assuming that Bus Ã‰ireann would be in pole position to capitalise on much faster journey times. Unfortunately, the bus company is not licensed to operate on motorways â€“ even its express services have to follow the old routes with passengers and drivers alike left to look longingly at the new motorway which would get them to their destination a whole lot faster.
O Lachtnain believes Bus Ã‰ireann should pull out of the route completely. â€œThey should not do the express routes. They should just leave them to the private operators. Bus Ã‰ireannâ€™s costs are too high and they can not compete with the much leaner private companies so they should not even try, and concentrate their efforts on other routes.â€
Bus Ã‰ireannâ€™s Andrew McLindon says he understands such sentiments but the reality is that â€œthe revenue from these services has helped to keep some parts of the rural network going. We offer 330 routes that are completely integrated so, if you want to travel from Miltown Malbay to Donegal and then down to the midlands, it is possible to do that on a single Bus Ã‰ireann ticket and our expressway service is an integral part of that system.â€
He does not shy away from criticism of the service. â€œWe take constructive criticism and we try to address it as best we can. Weâ€™re not saying we offer a perfect service but customer satisfaction levels have gone up in the last few years and it now stands at around 90 per cent.â€
Bus Ã‰ireann continues to market its product vigorously and has been exploring new channels in recent months. â€œWe are trying to reach new markets through social media, like Twitter, and are offering significant discounts through these channels. Any tickets bought through our website attract an automatic 10 per cent discount,â€ McLindon says.
The company has sold around 2,500 tickets through Twitter in the last three months. â€œThe ticket sales are good but what is better is that it has helped us reach new markets, people who may not have thought about taking the buses before.â€
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